Affirmative action programs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Affirmative action programs were designed to equalize opportunities for disenfranchised groups. They have been controversial since their inception, from the standpoints of both public policy and constitutional law. Critics and supporters alike would agree, however, that they significantly changed hiring and recruitment practices throughout the country, altering the composition of the workforce within several major industries.

On March 6, 1961, newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925Executive Order 10925, which required businesses receiving contracts with the federal government not only to refrain from discriminating in Employmentemployment but also to “take affirmative action to ensure that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The requirement was then understood to mean that employers should desegregate, ending all-black and all-white work units, departments, and divisions. On June 22, 1963, Kennedy’s Executive Order 11114Executive Order 11114 empowered federal agencies to terminate contracts with businesses disobeying Executive Order 10925. Nevertheless, southern firms continued to resist compliance, as enforcement was weak.Affirmative action programs

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The term “affirmative action” next appeared in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964, which empowered courts to require employers guilty of Discrimination;workplacediscrimination to engage in “such affirmative action as may be appropriate.” The statute went into effect on July 1, 1965, and suggested such remedies as hiring or reinstatement of employees with back pay.

So long as complainants were required to file lengthy and costly lawsuits in order to gain relief for illegal discrimination, discriminatory employers were at a definite advantage. Therefore, advocacy groups urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to require federal contractors to take “affirmative action” in advance of complaints by empowering an administrative agency to enforce requirements and monitor compliance. On September 24, 1965, Johnson issued Executive Order 11246Executive Order 11246, which extended affirmative action to the recruitment, screening, and selection of new employees. Enforcement was assigned to the U.S. Department of Labor. The Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionEqual Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), empowered to enforce Title VII, then asked errant employers to draw up “affirmative action plans,” that is, blueprints for changes in policies, practices, and procedures identified as responsible for discrimination.

On October 13, 1967, Johnson issued Executive Order 11375Executive Order 11375, extending affirmative action to cover sex discrimination. On May 28, 1968, the Labor Department for the first time required contractors to prepare written “affirmative action programs.”

The Philadelphia Plan and Backlash

Although affirmative action was understood to mean including ethnic groups and women in occupations from which they were formerly excluded, many employers provided only token responses to the new orders and regulations, such as hiring just one African American or woman in a particular job. In 1968, to deal with this tokenism, the Labor Department’s Philadelphia office began to require contractors to demonstrate compliance quantitatively.

What became known as the Philadelphia planPhiladelphia plan involved comparing employees and applicants for employment with statistical norms. For example, if Labor Department statistics showed that 30 percent of all forklift operators working in the Philadelphia area were African American, each contractor was required to ensure that close to 30 percent of its forklift operators were African American. Similarly, employers had to demonstrate that rates of promotion, salaries, and other aspects of employment treated both sexes and all ethnic and racial groups equally. If they could not do so, they were required to state specific reasons why disparities existed and correct the deficiencies.

The Philadelphia plan insisted that, where disparities were found, employers must draw up timetables for removing those disparities. It became a nationwide standard on February 5, 1970, when the Labor Department issued new guidelines for affirmative action known as Revised Order 4. The order required employers to assess whether they perpetuated patterns of exclusion or underemployment of minorities or women. If so, changes were to be made in any personnel policies, practices, or procedures that were deemed responsible for the anomalous patterns; goals and timetables for such changes were required. Failure to make an analysis or to correct deficiencies was deemed to constitute bad faith, placing a contract in jeopardy.

Allan Bakke arrives at the Medical School of the University of California at Davis in 1978. He successfully sued the university for reverse discrimination after it rejected him in 1973 and 1974.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Although the Philadelphia plan was acceptable to civil rights groups, some white men saw the hiring of an increasing number of minorities and women as “reverse discrimination.” Employers also began to complain of the cost of collecting, organizing, and analyzing detailed statistics about their employees.

Affirmative action has not always been implemented in a manner consistent with federal guidelines, leading to court challenges on some occasions. Judges, in turn, have supported affirmative action only when remedies have been narrowly tailored to remedy specific deficiencies in reasonable periods of time. In 1995, President Bill Clinton announced four standards for “mending” affirmative action: Affirmative action should not establish quotas, give preference to unqualified applicants, involve reverse discrimination, or continue beyond the existence of a demonstrable need. That policy continued through the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Further Reading
  • Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Traces affirmative action from the presidential executive orders of the 1960’s through the early twenty-first century, evaluating critiques and court challenges.
  • Bergman, Barbara. In Defense of Affirmative Action. New York: Basic Books, 1996. An advocacy book that points out that affirmative action is an antidote to preferences for whites who rely on social connections with those in authority for advancement.
  • Carter, Stephen L. Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. New York: Basic Books, 1991. Many African Americans hired during the era of affirmative action programs were accused of being unqualified, even though affirmative action is designed to benefit only qualified minorities and women. Carter describes how affirmative action served to exacerbate racial tensions for African Americans.
  • Curry, George E., ed. The Affirmative Action Debate. New York: Perseus, 1996. Eight essays detail the pros and cons of affirmative action.
  • Ezorsky, Gertrude. Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Coherent legal rebuttal to objections to the concept of affirmative action.
  • Glazer, Nathan. Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Vigorous critique of the concept of affirmative action as a form of discrimination.

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